Over the past three decades, Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust has conserved over 2,400 acres of the most productive and diverse lands in the region. Each conservation project comes with a deep and permanent responsibility to monitor and care for, or steward, the land forever.
With thousands of acres of farm, forest, and wetland, seventeen miles of trail, a Farmers’ Market, Community Garden, and Labyrinth to manage, the Land Trust’s stewardship work is diverse.
The Land Trust is increasing efforts to engage the community in a variety of ways to build support for this stewardship work which is so vital to the future ecological, economic, and social health of the community.
“We have to maintain a very active presence on our conservation properties to ensure their values are maintained over time – for outdoor recreation, traditional land uses like farming and forestry, scenic views, plant and animal habitat, water quality protection, and much more,” says Land Trust Associate Director Caroline Eliot.
“Every land owner knows that things change over time. Neighbors and surrounding land uses can change, and how the public uses our properties changes too. Sometimes these changes bring challenges that require an immediate response. It’s important to demonstrate that we’re paying attention to every property we own or steward.”
The Land Trust’s stewardship program is strong and robust, and it continues to build on past successes, even as the demands of stewarding local lands increase for this small non-profit.
Since 2009, the number of properties managed by the Land Trust has more than doubled.
All of its fifty-two protected properties must be visited at least once a year for monitoring. This work is done primarily by volunteers, but training, coordinating, and supporting these dedicated stewards takes considerable effort.
Quite a few of the Land Trust’s conservation properties are privately–owned and protected from development by deed restrictions called ‘conservation easements.’ Easements identify the property’s special values, such as habitat, open space, scenic qualities, watershed protection, and others, then state which activities are allowed and which are not allowed so that the unique qualities of the place will last. The Land Trust must inspect easement properties annually to ensure the terms of the easement are being met. When issues are found, such as an activity that is not consistent with the intent or terms of the easement, the staff must work with the landowner to resolve the issue. Most issues are inadvertent and result from misunderstanding or forgetting about specific easement terms. The vast majority of issues are resolved amicably, but this work takes time. Similarly, like any other property, easement-protected land periodically changes owners – requiring an investment of time by the Land Trust in establishing and maintaining a good relationship with the new owners, many of whom are unfamiliar with the responsibilities and limitations associated with conservation easements.
While easements require regular attention, in a typical year, it is the Land Trust’s public access properties that need the most care. As the region grows more popular, community members and visitors are increasingly aware of the many places the Land Trust makes available for recreation. As a result, trails are experiencing much higher levels of use. Many of the Land Trust’s seventeen miles of trail were built in the early 2000s. The infrastructure along these trails, and sometimes the trails themselves, now require replacement or major refurbishment.
“While we hope visitors see a trail that looks and feels like it needs little or no maintenance,” says Land Trust Executive Director Angela Twitchell, “In fact, keeping trails safe and beautiful requires constant effort – clearing blowdowns, clipping branches, protecting waterways from siltation, maintaining signs and blazes, and addressing issues such as unauthorized vehicles and uses.”
In the past, with fewer overall miles and much newer trails, trail maintenance was managed by a few volunteers – mostly Board Members of the Land Trust. More recently, with trail maintenance needs growing and the public’s expectations of trail conditions increasing, the Land Trust has had to add dedicated stewardship staff and more actively recruit, train, and coordinate stewardship volunteers.
Eliot points to a new program as an example. “We started a trail monitoring program in 2015 and have a great crop of dedicated trail monitors who serve as our eyes and ears on the ground,” says Eliot.
“We also have a small but committed group of trail workers, mostly retired folks who love to be outdoors. They bring wonderful skills to our work, but we always need strong young volunteers to help as well. One of our biggest challenges is finding strong young people to help with moving materials such as stone and timbers into the trails.”
“In my opinion, the Land Trust’s trails are some of the most outstanding features of our community,” says volunteer trail steward Wayne Whitney.
He explains his dedication to the work in this way: “I spend hot, sometimes buggy summer days doing this work because I like being in the woods getting healthy physical exercise. I get to work with caring people who share a common vision, and I believe we’re doing something worthwhile. I want future generations to have the same opportunity – both to volunteer and to enjoy these trails.”
In recent years the growing need for regular trail maintenance and trail refurbishment due to increased foot traffic, in addition to opportunities to build new trails on recently protected properties has made an all-volunteer force infeasible.
“We need to have people who can respond immediately to an issue, for example, if there’s a safety issue on a trail or a high-impact, unauthorized use. And we need people who can put in long hours building or refurbishing major sections of trail,” says Eliot.
“We currently have between 1.2 and 1.4 FTE staff working in stewardship, including a summer intern and other seasonal paid stewardship help. We’ll need at least this much staff time for stewardship, though likely more, in the coming years.”
The Land Trust also dedicates staff time to community and youth education in an effort to build support for stewardship. “I believe engaging the public in the care of our community’s special places is a key part of stewardship, explains Land Trust Outreach and Education Coordinator Nikkilee Cataldo.
“We want everyone to have the opportunity to connect with nature, and caring for this public resource – our trails – is a particularly nice way to do this. We also want to give children the opportunity to experience the wonder of the natural world. We want to cultivate in them at least a familiarity with, and hopefully a deep connection to these lands. This connection should enhance their personal wellbeing and help them value the natural world so they’ll grow up to be engaged and compassionate community members.”
Toward that end, the Land Trust runs over fifty educational events each year, and established its Young Explorers program to get young families outdoors and familiar with the natural features of our region.
Looking to the future, stewardship work will consume a larger proportion of the Land Trust’s limited resources as the amount of conserved land grows and maintenance needs increase. To be prepared for these stewardship demands, the Land Trust is making a concerted effort to raise awareness of, and funds for, its all-important stewardship work. Its recently completed comprehensive capital campaign established the Land Trust’s first stewardship endowment, and the ongoing Raffle for Stewardship is helping the Land Trust raise funds for that endowment and engage community members in conversations about the need for ongoing stewardship support.
Each raffle ticket sold for the beautiful, locally hand-built Night Heron Kayak helps support the Land Trust’s stewardship program and is a great opportunity for supporters to win an amazing boat. The boat is on display each week at the Saturday Farmers’ Market at Crystal Spring Farm, and tickets can be purchased at www.btlt.org/kayak.
More than anything, the Land Trust wants community members to get out on its beautiful trails, enjoy its public programs, and understand the value of conserved lands (easements) that are not accessible to the public – such as working farms, secluded forested habitat, wetlands, and watershed land. All these lands make the community an amazing place to live and visit – adding incalculable additional value to the community. Stewarding the land is the ‘forever’ but often forgotten part of conservation. But Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust is working hard to raise the visibility of and support for this work.
Trail Steward Wayne Whitney sums up the effort in his own words, “My vision is that a century from now people will experience the same sense of well-being, happiness, and serenity I feel when using our trails. That’s why stewardship is so important to me.”